LONDON — South African author Damon Galgut has mixed feelings. This has been a great week for him, a good month for African writers — and a terrible year, he says, for his country, blighted by pandemic and corruption.
Galgut won the Booker Prize for fiction on Nov. 3 for his novel “The Promise,” the story of a white South African family in decline in the years before and after the end of the racist apartheid system.
Receiving the 50,000 pound ($67,000) award at a ceremony in London, Galgut, 57, said he was accepting it “on behalf of all the stories told and untold, the writers heard and unheard” from Africa.
Galgut is pleased that “a long-term resistance in Europe or America to receiving African voices” may finally be easing. Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature in October. And last week, Senegal’s Mohamed Mbougar Sarr became the first writer from sub-Saharan Africa to win France’s leading literary award, the Prix Goncourt.
But, Galgut added, the issue is “double-edged.”
“Really, the transformation that needs to take place is not only in Western publishing — it’s also in Africa itself,” Galgut told The Associated Press, citing a dearth of publishers and booksellers. “I would like African governments to start taking their own artists seriously.”
“The Promise” opens in the apartheid-era 1980s, when dying Rachel Swart makes her husband promise to give their Black maid, Salome, her own house. The novel follows family members over several decades, and through a series of deaths, as the promise remains unkept.
Historian Maya Jasanoff, who chaired the Booker judging panel, called it “a book about legacies, those we inherit and those we leave.”
It’s a family story that can also be read as a state-of-the-nation novel, something Galgut says is hard to avoid for a South African writer.
“Maybe more than lots of other countries, South Africa’s recent past is not past yet,” Pretoria-born Galgut said in an online interview from his publisher’s office in London. “So even if you wanted to write a story that was not dealing with politics or history, if you create any particular character, you have to take account of the fact that they come from somewhere, they have a background.
“If you’re a white person, your history is very likely to be charged in a different way than if you’re a Black person. Did you participate in the military as a white person? What are the implications of that? Are you from a monied background, are you from a dispossessed background? All of that was shaped by our recent past, so you sort of have to take it into account.”
“The Promise” is told by a slyly humorous narrator who flits among characters, revealing the inner thoughts of people and even animals. The effect is a rich tapestry of South African voices.
“The notion that any one single voice can speak for South Africa is false,” he said. “We’re a chorus — a very dissonant, discordant chorus, but we are a chorus.”
There’s one exception: Salome, whose thoughts readers never hear. Galgut is aware that could be seen as marginalizing a Black character who should be at the center of the story.
“The vast majority of South Africa’s dispossessed or poor citizens are still the people who were made poor under apartheid, and their position has not changed,” he said. “So it seemed important to me that I convey to the reader the sense of silence that surrounds a character like Salome, and I made the decision, rightly or wrongly, to do that through making her a silent presence.
“I thought I could make the silence speak, actually, but the only way to do that is to make the silence problematic.”
Open to English-language novels from any country, the Booker Prize has a reputation for transforming the lives of its winners, who have included Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Hilary Mantel and Marlon James. Galgut won the Booker for his ninth novel, and on his third time as a finalist. He was previously shortlisted for “The Good Doctor” in 2003 and “In a Strange Room” in 2010.
He is the third South African novelist to win the Booker Prize, after Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee, who has won twice. Galgut, who lives in Cape Town, is gratified the novel has “hit a nerve” in his home country, where its central theme of land and who owns is it “at the center of South African political life.”
But he’s despondent about his homeland, which he says is in “a state of moral exhaustion” amid a pandemic that has killed almost 90,000 South Africans and battered the economy.
“South Africa’s economy was in a pretty bad state before COVID hit, but it’s really dire now,” he said.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in public money earmarked to fight the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa has been misappropriated by officials, according to investigators — just the latest example of the corruption afflicting Africa’s most developed economy.
“There’s a general sense of dejection and aimlessness, which is kind of new,” Galgut said. “South Africans are fairly resilient and very given to the hope that we can change things, we can transform things. But that hope is in short supply right now.”
Despite the gloom, Galgut is driven to explore the world around him. He’s mulling the idea of writing about the pandemic and the “strange existential chambers” created by lockdowns.
But he says he’s too cynical to believe that his book, or any book, can change the world.
“On the other hand, what I do believe is that books cumulatively change human perception,” he said. “So there’s a very big difference between people who read novels and people who don’t. Donald Trump, for me, is a man who doesn’t read novels, Jacob Zuma is a man who doesn’t read novels. Barack Obama strikes me as someone who does. Why? It’s because I think the function of novels is to make it clear to you that the world is not made in your own image.
“So in that sense, books matter.”